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49th Parallel Or: How Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Went To Canada and Made One Of the Best Propaganda Films of All Time.
When one thinks of propaganda, we most likely focus on "evil" propaganda, such as Nazi films or Soviet films. Perhaps we even think of more modern, biased "impartial" news broadcasts, or productions. When people think of England's propaganda films of the WWII era, most of them think of them as more of "movies" than "propaganda". While that may be true, they were made to try and bolster a nation's waning confidence in a losing war. While it is remarkable that many of these films still stand up today, some were made for other purposes. The purpose of 49th Parallel was to get The United States to join in the war.
You see, Britain was fighting a losing battle. The once powerful nation had, in the space of two years, had gone to barely hanging on. They needed help, and what they got from Canada, Australia and the other nations in the British Empire was minimal. But America didn't want to join in with out having to, and in 1940, there was no reason to (Pearl Harbour would occur after this film was released.) This film was Powell trying to show those Americans how nasty those Nazi's were. And it worked, kind of. The film as a big hit, and teh U.S. joined the war effort at the end of the year (probably had less to do with this film, and more with the Japanese attacking Hawaii).
The film is (basically) about a group of Nazi's wandering around Canada and trying to escape, first to overseas, then to the US, where they could be shipped back to Germany. It is also terrifically entertaining. Being from Canada, I have heard from a friend that this film is full to the brim with stereotypes (Eskimos, fur trappers, politeness), but I am sure that at the time that those kinds of people exist. Also, I have heard that there is a scene where a man fights a polar bear...which there isn't.
Anyways, stereotypes aside, this is a great film. For starters, the acting is great. I mean, look at that cast! Anton Walbrook, Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey and Eric Portman. And they are all great. Portman here is miles away from his sticky role in A Canterbury Tale (Such a sentimental movie!). Here he is slimy, and most definitely evil. He may not be the most accurate Nazi, but he is pretty unappealing. He carries with him a kind of smirk that personifies pure craftiness, and whenever he sports it, I sort of want to punch him in the face.
**MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW**
But when it does move on, it comes to Anton Walbrook. Walbrook is good, and he has a great speech where he denounces Nazi's. But his few scenes few to captivate the film in such a way as Olivier's. It also doesn't help that his is the weakest section of the film. The Nazi's encounter Hatterites, a religious group who live in a relaxed manner. In this section we also find a "nice" Nazi, and that plot line feels kind of half baked. Portman is quite good here. From this section the film moves to....
The next section focuses on Leslie Howard as a rich, English writer who lives in a teepee and writes about Native tribal studies. He meets them and insults their leader (without knowing they are Nazi's), and then is tied up. Howard is quite good here, and is very relatable in the role. He is very foolish, meaning the walking-towards-a-Nazi-who-has-a-loaded-gun kind of foolishness, but impeccably charming and goodhearted all the same. His incredibly cool actions under fire make everyone wish they could be so cool (well, maybe just me).
The final section showcases Eric Portman going head on with a Canadian GI in a freight train bound for Niagara Falls. The scene features a lot of preachy dialogue (democracy is amazing!), but it provides a fitting conclusion to the story so far. Raymond Massey, who plays the GI, is actually quite interesting. He plays a very boring part in a very interesting way, and I find his face to be fascinating. He manages to make the audience care for him, and gives us one last interesting character.
I hesitate to use the word "epic" when describing a film. For one, it has become increasingly overused in our modern society (Ex. "dude, that was epic") and it is mostly confined to films such a Lawrence of Arabia. However, the scope that this film manages, in such an intimate matter really makes me want to describe it as such. Pressburger's screenplay must have had something to do with this. It presents a story of scenes woven through a thin narrative fabric, but the genius lies in it's deceptively simple nature.
If you were to take one look at 49th Parallel, you could disregard it as wartime fluff. If you were to look at it a second time, perhaps you would think it was an adventure film. For a third glance, you could say it was a character study. A forth will reveal hidden commentary. By the fifth time, you are most likely over analyzing the film. But this kind of provoked thought that lies beneath a layer of entertainment is fascinating, and if one wishes to go fishing, you just need to put the bait in the water and see if the fish bites (I hope that analogy makes sense).
If the screenplay gives the actors good material, than the score gives us rousing wartime strings, and a resounding sense of patriotism. And that's it. Meaning it's a pretty average score, and not really that memorable. The cinematography is very nice and pretty, but doesn't stick out like Black Narcissus or The Small Back Room.
And now to the direction. Michael Powell manages to keep the entertainment at an almost unattainably high level, and he does it while telling the good ol' USA to get off their backs and pitch in with their old friends over at the UK. His technique is such that we rarely feel bored, and he gives us a light airy tone that can easily turn dark when it wants to. Powell's direction is conventional, perhaps, but good in any respect.
The thing that truly separates 49th Parallel from, say, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is it's enthusiasm. While Blimp is technically better than 49th Parallel, but this film sweeps over you like a bubbling tide, while the other slowly crawls to cover you with tepid seawater. This film has all the scope and entertainment to be a bonafide classic adventure film, with some generally unlikable protagonists. But it is relatively underrated. Perhaps it has dated, perhaps it is one stereotype too much for some people, or perhaps some just don't like it.
I don't quite know. But I do know one thing, this is a great film.
Starring: Eric Portman, Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard,
Directed by Michael Powell,
1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. 49th Parallel
4. The Small Back Room
5. The Red Shoes
6. The Tales of Hoffman
7. The Spy in Black
8. A Canterbury Tale
9. The Battle of the River Plate
10. I Know Where I'm Going